Chatoyant College: Book 4
Clare K. R. Miller
Life at Chatoyant College finally seems to be settling down for the girls. They all have great people to date and they’re making lots of friends. But when Corrie, Edie, and Annie are assigned to a group project by their absurd teacher, a new mystery crops up. One of their fellow students has an illusion on him. What does he have to hide? And is there something more sinister going on?
The Flicker (Chatoyant College, Book 4)
by Clare K. R. Miller
Text Copyright © 2017 Clare K. R. Miller
Shareable under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Cover image by bobooks
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, events, and locations are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons or events, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.
This file is licensed for private individual entertainment only. The book contained herein constitutes a copyrighted work and may not be reproduced, stored in or introduced into an information retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means (electrical, mechanical, photographic, audio recording, or otherwise) for any reason (excepting the uses permitted to the licensee by copyright law under terms of fair use) without the specific written permission of the author.
Chapter 1: Morning Run
Saturday, September 13
Saturday morning, Corrie woke bright and early. Not that she ever woke up much later than this. But today was different. She felt even more excited than usual as she sat up in bed and quickly turned off her alarm. She glanced over at her roommate, Edie, who still appeared to be sleeping soundly, then jumped out of bed and changed from her oversized T-shirt to sweatpants, a sports bra, and a tank top. She pulled on socks, laced up her sneakers, stuck her ID card in her pocket, and took the stairs two at a time.
Once outside, she rounded the dorm building—Gilkey’s only entrance faced south—and walked quickly north. The weather was not as good as one might hope, with a drizzle of rain and some light fog, but at least she could see where she was going. And quite quickly, she saw what she was looking for. Byron looked a little strange with his slightly curly hair plastered to his head, but it didn’t do him harm, either, especially since his shirt showed off his muscle tone even more distinctly than usual.
She grinned at him. “Ready to go?”
“As ready as ever,” he responded. With no more than that, they started running, heading north along the path to begin with. The path didn’t quite make a circuit around the school, inconveniently, but when they’d discussed it on Thursday, they had realized that they had both worked out almost exactly the same path to minimize backtracking. Corrie thought there must be only one best path. She usually took it the other way, but they’d agreed to switch off. That way it would be a little more interesting.
She had remembered that the first time she’d seen Byron, he’d been running close by, but not on the same path as her. She’d tried to ask about that without revealing that she’d seen him running before they’d really met—she didn’t want to sound like a stalker—and he’d ended up admitting that he didn’t always take the path. Sometimes when he was feeling tired he took a shortcut through the grass, and sometimes when he was feeling especially energetic he took a long way around.
That had made her nervous. She knew that they only ran in the daytime, but as winter crept closer, the days would be shorter and shorter, and it would be dark in the mornings when they ran at some point. But even at the brightest midday, she didn’t think it was a good idea to walk on the grass any more than necessary. That had been Ever’s warning, enigmatic at the time, but much easier to understand once Corrie, Edie, and Dawn had met faeries in the woods and learned that Ever herself was a faerie.
Unfortunately, Byron didn’t know about the faeries, and Corrie didn’t want to tell him. Part of it was that she was afraid he would think she was crazy. He could probably handle crazy, but she still didn’t want to be thought of that way. Part of it was that knowing about faeries seemed to put people in danger, and she didn’t want to do that to him. So she’d had another tricky time convincing him to stay on the paths. Thankfully, he’d been convinced by her preference and worries about slipping in the grass, and admitted that he often felt an obscure guilt or worry when running on the grass himself.
That was interesting, as it helped confirm an idea she’d had that students understood the need to stay on the paths and do other things that avoided the faeries, even when they didn’t know about them explicitly. Maybe it was part of the spell that affected the whole campus, which also coaxed people to forget about the faeries. Another question to ask Professor Lal if she could.
But for now, she should focus on the good time she was having. She was combining two of her favorite activities: running and hanging out with a hot guy. Even better, that hot guy seemed to have a high opinion of her, as well. She turned her head to grin at Byron. He seemed to feel her gaze on him, and turned his head to grin back. Then they both quickly faced forward again so they could see where they were going. At least the paths were nice and wide, so if they veered off course they would have time to correct.
By the time they arrived back at their starting point, Corrie was pretty much drenched, between the rain, the fog, and her own sweat. She was breathing heavily—Byron had set a pace a little faster than her usual pace (of course, his legs were slightly longer), but she thought that could only be a good thing for her workout. She had a runner’s high and, a moment after they stopped, Byron grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her. Yeah, life was pretty good. After a moment, she broke the kiss, then nodded toward a nearby tree that overshadowed the path. They went to stand beneath it, so they were a little more protected from the rain, and kissed for several more minutes.
Chapter 2: Health Freaks and Teenage Boys
“Okay, this is fun,” said Byron, still breathing a little heavily (though not, Corrie suspected, from the run anymore), “but delicious as you are I’m starving for some real food.”
She laughed. “I’m hungry too, but I need a shower first. I don’t like to go to the dining hall stinky.”
He made a show of bending down and sniffing her. “You smell fine to me.”
She pushed him away, but not too hard. “Also, we’re going to drip all over the floor.”
“I guess that’s true,” he admitted. He lifted his arm and gave it a shake to prove it. Several drops flew off of it. “Maybe I should have a shower too. You’re not one of those girls who takes an hour getting ready, are you?”
“Do I look like one of those girls?” she asked him, putting her hands on her hips.
He kissed her on the forehead. “Of course not. Okay, I guess I’ll meet you at the dining hall when we’re clean and dry.”
Thankfully, her dorm building had an entrance hall separate from the rest of the building. It was perfect for standing and dripping in. Once she was sure she wasn’t going to make too much of a mess (the rest of the hall and the stairs were all tiled and wouldn’t be ruined by water, but she didn’t want to make them too slippery) she headed upstairs. Edie was, unsurprisingly, still sleeping when she stopped by the room to get her soap and towels. The hot shower felt wonderful; though it wasn’t really cold out, the rain had chilled her slightly. She dressed in real clothes—jeans and a T-shirt—and put on her rain boots. She grabbed her umbrella, then noticed her sneakers sitting on the floor leaking water. She should do something about that. She felt the radiator. Slightly warm. That would dry out her sneakers, hopefully by the next day. She put them on the radiator behind her chest of drawers, then headed out the door.
The dining hall was pretty deserted, which was no surprise. Most college students were sleeping this early on a Saturday morning. She found Byron quickly. He was putting his jacket down on a chair at one of the smaller tables. She followed suit with the chair across from his, leaning her umbrella against the table as well. Then she had to decide what to eat. Since it was the weekend and most people got up towards midday, the dining hall did brunch instead of separate breakfast and lunch meals, so besides the omelette station, pancakes, sausages, and cereal both cold and hot, the salad and sandwich bars were open, and the soup station had two different offerings. She decided the tomato soup looked really good, and accompanied it with several slices of multigrain toast and a glass of water.
She returned to the table before Byron did, so she started to eat while she waited for him. She was halfway through the first piece of toast when he said, “Now tell me the truth, Corrie. Are you a health freak?”
“Who, me?” she said, looking up at him. She shrugged. “I don’t think so. This just looked tasty.” He sat down across from her, carrying a fully-loaded tray. He had an omelette, a small stack of pancakes, several sausages, and what appeared to be a turkey and cheese sandwich, plus a glass of cola. She stared at the massive amount of food in disbelief. “What about you? Trying to give yourself a heart attack?”
He looked down at the food. “Hey, there are vegetables in this omelette.” He picked up his fork and grinned. “Besides, I figure it’s what I deserve after all that exercise.”
“I didn’t think you would count as a teenage boy anymore, but you must be, because only teenage boys can eat that much food and not burst.” She shook her head at him and tore off another piece of toast to dip in her soup.
“Hey!” He grabbed her other wrist. “You know very well I’m not a teenager.”
She laughed and pulled away. “Right. You’re so mature that you eat even more than most teenage boys do.”
“Oh, come on, how often did you see teenage boys eat?”
“Not very,” she admitted. “I mean, I guess every day at school I saw them eat lunch, but I never paid much attention.” Her thoughts couldn’t help going to Paul—he had, naturally, been to her apartment a few times, and she’d been to his house—but she didn’t remember his eating habits, and didn’t particularly want to bring him up anyway. She was having a good time with Byron, and no matter what she thought about, Paul was just going to bring her down.
Chapter 3: Andrew, Ashton, and Russell
“That doesn’t count. High school lunch is limited. To truly understand the eating habits of teenage boys, you have to see them at home. This,” Byron said, jabbing downward with his fork for emphasis, “is nothing compared to what most teenage boys would eat for breakfast, given the option.”
Corrie grinned. “I guess you would know better than me.”
“Damn straight I would!”
When they had finished their breakfasts—Corrie had had to sit and wait several minutes for Byron to finish what she still believed was a massive amount of food—he finally said, “So, what do you want to do now?”
She shrugged. “I don’t have any particular goals for the day. What about you?”
“Want to come meet my roommates?”
“Are you sure that’s your goal in asking me to come to your dorm?” she asked, grinning as she pulled on her jacket.
He winked. “Well, it might be important for you to know where it is.”
“Let’s go.” They dropped off their trays and left the building. Corrie was about to open her umbrella when she realized it had stopped raining. The campus was still filled with wisps of fog, but at least water wasn’t falling from the sky. She tucked the umbrella under her arm and walked with Byron down the path toward Hickory. It, like Gilkey, was on the east side of campus, but further north, away from the gate. He used his ID card to unlock the door and took her to the elevator and up one floor. As they walked down the hall to his room, she asked, “So is this one of the specialty floors? I heard Hickory has all kinds of divisions.”
He nodded. “The upper floors do. The first and second floors are just supposed to be wheelchair-accessible.” He took his keys out of his pocket and started to unlock the door.
She raised her eyebrows. “Wheelchair-accessible on the second floor?”
He shrugged, opening the door and waving her through. “I don’t know what the logic was. There’s one girl on campus with a wheelchair and she lives on the first floor. But it means we have a really big shower.”
Corrie looked around. It was a big room, set up more like an apartment than like the dorm room she shared with Edie. They were in the common room, which had a couch, two chairs, and a TV. In one corner was a mini fridge, a microwave, a high counter, and a small pantry. She could see three doors leading off besides the one they’d just come through. One of them was partly open and had voices coming from it. After a moment someone came out. “Oh, hi. Corrie, right?”
“Right,” she said. It took her a moment to place him, then remembered that he’d been one of the friends Byron had introduced her to earlier in the week. “And you’re Andrew.”
“That’s right, I forgot I introduced you two already,” said Byron.
“Ashton is finishing getting dressed,” said Andrew. “You could have warned us you were bringing a girl over, Byron!”
“Sorry,” said Byron, sounding quite unrepentant. “Was he trying to seduce you again?”
Andrew rolled his eyes. “If I thought he was trying to seduce me, we would not be roommates.”
“I gave up a long time ago,” said someone Corrie was forced to assume was Ashton, walking out of the room barefoot but wearing jeans and a tight T-shirt. “Oh, hi, Corrie!”
“Sorry, do I know you?” Corrie said, confused. She remembered the others Byron had introduced her to, and Ashton wasn’t one of them.
“Oh, you might not recognize me, but I remember you!” Ashton stepped toward her and held out his hand, bent down at a slight angle from his wrist. He was obviously playing up the gay thing. “Ashton. I’m a member of the Rainbow Alliance.”
“Oh!” She shook his hand. “Sorry, there were so many people there, I can’t keep track of them all.”
“That’s okay, I’m sure we’ll be good friends!”
“I hope so,” she said, grinning.
“Russ still asleep?” asked Byron, nodding toward the closed door.
“Let’s see,” said Ashton with an exaggerated gesture, lifting his wrist (which had a watch on it) and staring at it. “Yes, definitely before three PM on a weekend. Russ is still asleep.”
“Russ is your roommate, I take it,” said Corrie.
“Yeah,” said Byron. “I actually don’t know him that well. I lived with Josh last year, but…”
Andrew snorted. “Oh, he’ll tell you stories.”
“Nah, I don’t want to bore her,” said Byron with a dismissive gesture.
“Oh?” Ashton raised an eyebrow. “Does that mean you’re over it?”
“Sure,” Byron said. He shrugged uncomfortably. “I still hang out with the guy, don’t I?”
Andrew and Ashton exchanged a glance. “Sure,” said Andrew. Corrie made a mental note to ask about living with Josh later, when she and Byron were alone and his roommates couldn’t interrupt.
“Well, we were just talking about putting on a movie,” said Ashton. “Want to join us, Corrie?”
“I’d love to,” she said with a smile, glad Byron’s friends were accepting her so easily.
Chapter 4: A Collection of Friends
Dawn had had all these great plans for college. She was going to restructure her life. Not so much change what she did, but how she did it. Instead of cramming for tests at the last minute like she’d done in high school, she was going to make study plans and study a certain amount every day. Instead of snacking on sugary things, she would eat right and get plenty of vegetables. Instead of staying up as late as she possibly could only to be rudely awakened by the alarm on school nights and sleeping half the day on weekends, she was going to set up a sleep schedule that would give her enough rest every night and stick to it.
She hadn’t tested the first one yet, and she hadn’t done too much snacking on sugary things, but the last goal was pretty much dead. She hadn’t bothered with it the first few days, since they didn’t have any classes. Once classes had started she’d gone to bed on time the first few days, but with everything that kept happening… well, here it was Saturday of the second week of classes, and not only had she stayed up way past her bedtime the night before watching movies with her friends, she was in bed much later than she’d planned. In fact, it was almost noon.
Shaking her head to clear it of sleep, Dawn swung her legs out of bed and stood up. She glanced over at Naomi’s bed. Her roommate was still, evidently, sleeping. But that was no surprise—Dawn had no idea when she’d gotten back the night before, having been asleep already herself.
A shower would be nice. She grabbed her towel and shower bag. The shower was nice and hot, and once she’d washed herself and shaved her legs, she felt quite refreshed. It looked to be a nice day outside—there was a bit of fog floating about, but the sun was shining brightly—so she decided to wear a skirt and a drapey satin shirt. She was half dressed when a knock came at the door. “Just a minute,” she called softly, glancing over at her roommate again. Naomi stirred slightly, but didn’t get up. Dawn quickly got the shirt on the rest of the way and patted down her hair so it would lay flat, then opened the door.
Edie was waiting on the other side. “Hey, Dawn,” she said.
“Hey,” Dawn said in response. She leaned back into the room and grabbed her purse, which had her ID card in it, then went out in to the hallway, closing the door carefully behind her. “What’s up?”
“Just wanted to see if you wanted to get some brunch.”
“Sounds good,” Dawn said. “Corrie’s not here?”
Edie shook her head. “She was going running with Byron this morning. She’s probably hanging out with him.”
“Oh, cool.” They headed down the hall. “Shall we get the rest of the group together?” asked Dawn.
“Sure, why not?” Edie said with a shrug. They stopped at Annie’s door and knocked. As they were waiting, Edie said shyly, “If someone had told me I would have this many friends at college a few weeks ago, I would have laughed at them and then felt sorry for myself for being lonely.”
Dawn smiled sympathetically, though inside she felt a little guilty—she’d never had trouble making friends, and she suspected Corrie hadn’t either. Were they just pulling Edie into their social circle because they liked her? “I hope you don’t feel lonely anymore.”
Edie shook her head, smiling. “No, I—”
At that moment the door opened. Annie looked serious and tired for a split second, then broke into a wide grin. “Edie, hi! How are you?”
Grinning—though more inwardly than outwardly—Dawn revised her assessment. They might have become friends with Annie primarily because of Dawn’s ability, but that didn’t mean Edie couldn’t have found her on her own. Those two obviously got along well.
“Starving, that’s how I am,” said Edie cheerfully. “Want to go get brunch with us?”
“I’d love to. Let me grab my card. Is it nice out?” Annie glanced back, toward the window.
“Don’t know.” Edie shrugged. “It looks pretty nice.”
“I thought it looked nice—plenty of sun,” Dawn added.
“I won’t need my jacket, then.” Annie went back into the room, closing the door most of the way behind her. Dawn heard her say, “Salome, want to go get brunch?” The only response Dawn could hear was a muffled grunt, and soon Annie reappeared in the doorway on her own.
Chapter 5: Breakfast Time
They knocked on Roe and Talia’s door, but no one answered, so next they went down to the fourth floor and knocked on Rico and Duncan’s door. Rico was the one to open it, and he smiled at Dawn. She smiled automatically back, feeling her spirits rise instantly from his presence—even though she hadn’t exactly been down to begin with. “Are you turning into the Pied Piper, hon?” Rico asked, looking over at her friends with raised eyebrows.
“I think Corrie’s the one who collects people, actually,” Dawn said with a laugh. “We’re just seeing who wants to get some brunch.”
“In that case, count us in.” Rico turned his head to call to his roommate, “Hey, Duncan! Put your clothes on so you don’t scare the girls!” Dawn couldn’t quite hear Duncan’s response, but it sounded like a curse word. “Be right back,” said Rico. “I got no shoes on.”
A few moments later, both boys were dressed and ready to go. The last door they knocked on was Lorelei’s, but she didn’t seem to be there either. The group was smaller than it might have been, but that just proved to Dawn that they had plenty of friends. The weather seemed to be just as nice as Dawn had predicted, too; the wisps of mist were fading away, and the sun was beating down warm, but not too warm, on their heads.
At the dining hall, they didn’t notice anyone else they knew, so they claimed a table and went to get some food. Dawn was feeling quite hungry, so she picked up an omelette, loaded with mushrooms, spinach, and cheese, and some toast and orange juice to go with it. Waiting in line at the omelette station made her the last person to sit down, but they’d kept a seat for her on the end of the table, with Rico on her left and Edie across from her. Rico squeezed her hand as she set down her tray. She squeezed back. “So, anyone have plans for the weekend?”
“I plan to relax,” said Rico with feeling.
Dawn laughed. “I could help you with that.”
“Eww,” said Annie playfully, wrinkling her nose. They all laughed.
“Besides homework, I think we’ll all have to think about planning our new pagan club,” said Edie.
“New pagan club?” asked Rico.
Dawn swallowed the mouthful of omelette that she had. “Remember what I told you about the crazy pagan club that Corrie and Edie were going to?” He nodded. She continued, “Well, after several days of me subtly and not-so-subtly hinting to Corrie that she should start her own club, she’s finally agreed.”
Rico laughed. “I knew you could do anything if you put your mind to it. That’s cool, I hope it works out.”
“You two could join, you know,” said Edie, raising her eyebrows at them. “We don’t have any rules against boys, unlike the other club.”
“Oh, and Duncan, you’re good at math, aren’t you?” said Dawn.
Duncan stared down at his bowl of cereal. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Top of our class,” said Rico, nudging his friend with his elbow. “Why do you need someone good at math?”
“Clubs have to have treasurers to be official,” explained Edie. “I don’t think we’d really do a lot with money, but it would be helpful to have someone actually good at that sort of thing to be nominally in charge.”
Duncan rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. All you’ll need for keeping track of your money is simple arithmetic. Maybe a spreadsheet so you don’t lose track of it…”
“See?” said Rico. “Duncan, if you don’t do it, I’ll tell that girl you like what a jerk you are.”
“You don’t—” said Duncan, starting to scowl.
“So does that mean you’re joining the club, Rico?” Dawn interrupted, thinking Duncan looked pretty angry. She was curious who it was that Duncan liked, but she could get that information out of Rico quite easily later.
“Sure,” he said with a grin. “I won’t promise anything, but I’ll be there to support you and make it look like a more popular club. I mean, I might not be as pious as Duncan, but I am still a Christian…”
“Oh, that’s fine,” said Dawn. She had forgotten that Duncan was fairly religious—now she remembered what he had said about not liking magic. Maybe that was why he was so angry. Well, she wouldn’t force him to join the pagan club if he thought it was immoral. “At least, I don’t think we’re going to be forcing people to adhere to any particular religion, right?”
“Not us,” said Edie with a nod. “Besides, Christian perspectives are probably a good thing, right? You guys can tell us about what the Bible says about witches.” Suddenly she sat up straighter, looking at something over Dawn’s shoulder. Dawn turned, but didn’t see anything interesting. “And there’s some more people we want for the club!” She waved and called out, “Hey, Darcy, Theresa!”
Chapter 6: Darcy and Theresa
A girl with bobbed brown hair and a pink dress with a full skirt grinned and waved back at Edie. She took a step toward them, but then another girl, who had long brown hair, put her hand on the first girl’s arm and stopped her. The second girl looked upset. They turned to each other and started talking, their lips moving rapidly, though Dawn couldn’t hear a word they were saying over the noise in the dining hall. If only she’d learned to read lips.
“What’s going on?” she asked Edie in a low voice.
Edie shook her head, obviously confused. “Those are Darcy and Theresa… remember, I told you about them, from the Circle of the Goddess?”
Dawn nodded, turning back for another look at the two girls. Theresa was the girl whom Payton and Elena had kicked out of the club, apparently disliking her because she was transgender. Darcy was her friend. They had talked about inviting those two to the new pagan club, which was probably what Edie was trying to do now, but there seemed to be some problems with that.
However, when Dawn turned around again, the two were walking toward them. The shorter one with the pink dress was smiling, the other one not so much. “Hi, Edie!” said the first when they reached the table. “How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks,” said Edie. “These are my friends Annie, Dawn, Rico, and Duncan. Guys, this is Darcy and this is Theresa. Come on and sit down.”
Darcy took the seat next to Annie, across from Duncan, and Theresa took the seat on the end, though she pulled it a little toward Darcy and away from Duncan. “Theresa has something she’d like to say to you, Edie,” said Darcy primly.
Theresa glared at her friend, then sighed and turned to Edie. “Darcy told me about how you stood up for me after I left the Circle of the Goddess meeting,” she said reluctantly. “Thank you.”
Edie blushed slightly. “You’re welcome. I felt really bad for the way they were treating you. You didn’t deserve that.”
“But you didn’t walk out on the meeting, did you?” said Theresa, scowling.
“Um, neither did Darcy,” said Edie, obviously taken aback.
“Hey, from what I heard, those two have a lot of charisma,” said Dawn. Edie looked like she was getting upset and Dawn wanted to prevent an argument. “It’s hard to just leave a group like that. But everyone here has left the Circle of the Goddess club now.”
“Really?” asked Darcy. Theresa perked up a little.
Edie nodded, taking a deep breath. “That’s why I called you over, actually. Corrie and I are starting a new pagan club. We were hoping you would be willing to join.”
Darcy stared for a moment, then slowly, her lips spread into a happy grin. “I’d love to. I know you guys won’t run a club full of prejudice and snobbishness.”
“Definitely not. We want to welcome everyone.”
“You’ll come too, right, Theresa?” asked Darcy.
“I don’t know…” said Theresa.
“If you’re interested in paganism, you really should join,” said Annie. “I’m only vaguely interested and I’m going to join anyway.” She blushed a little—that seemed odd, Dawn hadn’t though Annie was that shy—but continued anyway. “It’ll be fun, and Edie has a ton of books.”
Edie laughed. “Actually, Corrie’s mom lent me those. But given her attitude about it, I bet she’ll be happy if I let other people read them too. We’ll ask Corrie. But I promise you, whatever we end up doing in this club, it will be nothing like Circle of the Goddess.”
“At least give it a shot,” Darcy urged.
Theresa finally laughed and nodded. “Fine, I’ll go to the first meeting, at least. With all this enthusiasm, how could I refuse?”
“Great!” said Edie. “We’re planning to meet on Tuesday in the Gilkey common room… though you know, I don’t think we ever agreed on a time.”
“Well, here, let’s exchange email addresses.” Darcy opened her purse—which was white with pink trim that matched her dress—and pulled out a little notebook and pen. She wrote something, then handed Edie a piece of paper and a pen. Edie wrote down her email address and handed it to Dawn to write hers, then they swapped.
“Okay, great,” said Dawn. “Now we have a real club. And Corrie didn’t think people would join.”
“Actually…” Edie pursed her lips, staring into space. Dawn stared back at her, wondering what she was doing. After a moment, she grinned. “I just counted, and it’s what I thought. We outnumber them now. There’s only six of them, now that Corrie, Darcy and I have left, and there are nine of us.”
“Awesome!” said Annie. Everyone laughed.
“Well, I’m glad this has all worked out so nicely,” Rico said, pushing his chair back. “But I’m ready to get out of here. Dawn, won’t you join me?”
Chapter 7: Man-Made
Instead of heading back toward Gilkey, as Dawn had expected, Rico led her in a different direction entirely: to the west, toward the parking lot. “I didn’t know you had a car,” she commented, looking around the lot and wondering which one was his. Hopefully not the big shiny Hummer.
“Well, I guess it depends on your definition of ‘car.’” They kept walking.
Now that was mysterious. Was it a motorcycle? Dawn wasn’t sure how comfortable she’d be riding a motorcycle, though she would do it for Rico. At least she knew he wouldn’t let her fall. But as they reached the far end of the lot and he took out his keys, there were no motorcycles in sight.
When she saw the vehicle he was inserting his keys into, she understood his comment and couldn’t help giggling. It was a car, sure, but it wasn’t in great shape. The left rear door was a completely different color from the rest of the car, and the trunk appeared to be held closed with a bungee cord. It had no antenna and one of the headlights was duct-taped on. “I guess I can’t say you didn’t warn me,” she said.
“Now, you’d better sit in the back seat,” he said, gesturing. “The front passenger seatbelt doesn’t work.”
“You’re not going to get in an accident, are you?” she teased.
He gave her a mock-serious look. “I’m not, but that doesn’t mean some other driver isn’t, huh? I want you to be safe.”
She kissed him softly. “I know.” Though she would rather have sat in the passenger seat, of course, she went around to the passenger side and sat in the back, making sure to buckle herself in carefully. “At least I can see you from here,” she called to Rico in the driver’s seat.
He grinned and started the car. “Don’t worry, it’s not too far.”
“Where are we going, anyway?” she asked as he backed out of the spot and drove down to the road.
“It’s a surprise!”
She contented herself with looking out the window as Rico drove. They passed through the small college town quickly, and after that the only things to see were fields of various kinds and, occasionally, copses of trees. She didn’t think it was the same direction as Corrie’s mom had taken them to the city, but since that had been at night, she couldn’t be sure. After about fifteen minutes, she guessed, they were at another small town. Rico found a spot on the street and parked.
She got out and slipped her arm through his on the sidewalk. “This is your surprise? Another town?”
“This town has something different.” He led her down the street and then down a side street. When they emerged from the buildings, they were at the entrance to a small park. Between gentle hills, at the end of a tree-lined path, a body of water sparkled in the early afternoon sunlight.
“A park!” She looked around in delight as they approached the water. It was obviously man-made, but quite pretty nonetheless.
“I thought it would be nice to enjoy something nature-like without the threat of faeries.”
“That’s sweet!” She squeezed his arm. “But I don’t know how sure we can be that there are no faeries here.”
“Really?” He led her to a wooden bench that had once been painted green, though most of the paint had been rubbed off over time. “I would have thought faeries would avoid a place like this, since everything is man-made,” he said as they sat down.
She shrugged. “I don’t know enough about the faeries to say for sure. I mean, they go to school as students and teachers, so they have to spend most of their time in man-made buildings.”
“True, but at least the school is surrounded by woods. This is all surrounded by fields and buildings.”
She sighed and leaned against him. “I don’t know. I’d like to hope you’re right.”
“Well, if you see any faeries, you let me know and we can get out of here. Otherwise, let’s just relax.”
“Sounds good to me.” In a tree above them, a bird burst into song, a short tuneless trill, but pretty nonetheless. Dawn looked up, but she couldn’t see it through the leaves on the trees. Though it was September, autumn had evidently not reached this little park yet; all the leaves that she could see around them were green and perky, showing no signs of leaving their trees. That made her think of the past spring. It had been her final year of high school, of course, and she, like most of the other students at her school, had been slacking off. The teachers didn’t expect any better of them, so most of their classes were slow and easy. There had been two events that the student body was split between regarding as most significant: the senior prom and the receipt of college acceptance letters. For Dawn, it had been the latter.
“What made you choose Chatoyant College?” she asked.
Chapter 8: Relaxing
“Well, I guess it was the magic,” Rico said. “Wasn’t it the same for you?”
“In a way, I guess,” said Dawn. “I remember my aunt showing me some magic as a kid. She didn’t use it all that much, though. Mostly, I think, it was that she really liked it here and she wanted at least one of her nieces and nephews to come here.”
“Yeah, I remember you saying that your aunt knew magic,” Rico said. He shifted a little so he was sitting diagonally on the bench, half-facing Dawn. “That must have been really cool. I’ve never seen anyone using magic.”
“What about the witch you said lived on your street?”
Rico shook his head. “I never actually saw her doing magic. I saw the results of it, and heard a lot of stories, but she didn’t let anyone see what she was doing unless they were the ones having magic done on them. Actually, she did a healing spell on me when I was really little, but I don’t remember any of it.”
“Interesting.” Dawn picked up Rico’s left hand—his right was on the back of the bench—in both of her own and stroked his fingers absent-mindedly. She had long fingers, but his hands were still much bigger than hers. “And it never occurred to you to disbelieve in magic? I mean, I’ve always believed in it, but I know most people don’t, and even some of my cousins claim not to believe in it now, despite having seen Aunt Pru just as much as I did.”
“Nope. I grew up hearing stories of my astonishing recovery—I had a really nasty bout of pneumonia as a child—and every couple of years I’d see something the witch actually did. Like there was this girl in middle school with really, really horrible acne. She saved her allowance up, went to the witch over the weekend, and on Monday her skin was totally clear.” He grinned. “That was a really quick one, but it wasn’t the only one.”
“Huh.” Dawn nodded. “After all that, I can see why you would never doubt it.”
“I’ve managed to convince a few other people, too,” he added.
“What do you mean?”
“Some people in my magic class were grumbling about not learning magic yet. They said Professor Rook was just trying to trick us by saying we would learn magic in the second half of the semester—I assume Professor Lal said the same thing to you?” Dawn nodded, and Rico continued. “They wanted some evidence that magic was real, and were upset that they’d come to this school to take magic classes without any.”
“Didn’t Professor Rook do any magic in the first class?”
“No, not that I noticed. Did Professor Lal?”
“Yeah, she slammed all the doors in the classroom without being near any of them. Probably not hard to do, but it was pretty cool.”
Rico laughed. “I wish I’d seen that. Anyway, I told the guys in my magic class about the witch. They seemed impressed.”
“I can imagine.” Dawn leaned against Rico’s side. He was very comfortable to lean against, and warm, too; not that it was cold out, but today was a little cooler than it had been the last couple of weeks. It was September, after all. “It’s kind of weird… maybe not weird, but interesting, how many people come here without necessarily believing in magic. Professor Lal said that it used to be only very few people came to Chatoyant College, and they all knew about it already from family or something, kind of like me.”
“Used to be?” He put his arm around her shoulders, hugging her close. “It’s still a really tiny college.”
“I guess it was even tinier before.”
“But why are you surprised? Most people in the world don’t believe in magic.”
“I guess it seems like you shouldn’t even come to this school if you don’t believe in magic.”
“That makes sense.” He shrugged—she couldn’t see it, but she could feel his shoulders moving. “I’m not going to stop them, though.”
“No,” she agreed. She took a deep breath, noticing the faint smells of greenery and water. “This is a really peaceful place. I don’t think there’s anything living here besides some birds and squirrels. Thanks for taking me here.”
“No faeries?” he asked.
“Not that I can see.”
“Good.” He kissed the side of her head. “I am surprised that no one else is here in the park, though.”
“Why would they be?”
“Well, there must be people living in the town, right? Why did they make this nice park if they weren’t going to take advantage of it? It’s a very nice Saturday afternoon.”
“I guess so.” Dawn looked around as much as she could without sitting up. “Maybe they all came in the morning. Or maybe they’re so freaked out by seeing strangers in their park that they’re keeping out of our way.”
“I can’t complain about that.”
Chapter 9: Different in the Daytime
Edie had just finished reading one of the pagan books that Corrie’s mom had lent her, and was getting up to start on a new one, when her cell phone rang. Perfect timing. She put down the book, then picked up the phone from her desk, not bothering to check who was calling before she flipped it open. Only a few people had the number, and she was relaxed and happy to talk to any of them right now. Even her little brother. “Hello?”
“Edith, darling! Are you busy?”
Edie smiled, a warm happiness flooding through her. Of all the people who might have called her, this was by far the best option: her girlfriend Leila. “No, of course not! Actually, I was just looking for something else to do, so you’ve caught me at a good time.”
“I’m delighted to hear that. Why don’t you come downstairs? I’ll meet you at the door to Gilkey in a few minutes.”
Edie hung up, then practically ran to her closet. She’d dressed that morning without thinking, just throwing on whatever was available, but now that she was going to see Leila, she wanted to look nicer. She didn’t have long, though—she didn’t want to make Leila wait. Hanging in her closet she found the shirt she’d bought the first week at school that Dawn and Corrie had assured her was so flattering. She pulled off her T-shirt, tossed it in the corner of the closet, and pulled on the new shirt hastily. She swiped a comb through her hair a few times (changing had given her curls even more frizz than they usually had), then tucked her ID card and her keys into her pocket, locked the door, and took the steps two at a time.
As it turned out, she didn’t keep Leila waiting. In fact, she was already outside and had settled into a leaning position against the building when Leila appeared around the corner. Leila smiled. “Hello, darling! How are you?”
Edie grinned. “Much better now that you’re here. Not that I was unhappy before,” she added quickly, “but I was a little bored.”
Leila kissed Edie on the forehead. “Well, I’m glad I’m here to fix that.” She took Edie’s arm, and they started walking back around the building, the way Leila had come. She plucked one of Edie’s curls, letting it spring back. “You ought to let this grow out,” she said. “It would be so lovely.”
“Grow out?” Edie laughed. “This is almost the longest it’s ever been. Curly hair doesn’t grow very fast.”
“Well, why don’t you let it do what it will, and refrain from cutting it for some time?”
“I guess I could do that.” Edie pulled a curl forward so she could look at the end of it, though it was barely long enough to get in front of her face. “If it gets all raggedy and full of splits, though, it’s your fault.”
Leila laughed, and Edie smiled. Leila’s laugh always made Edie feel good. “I promise I will take full responsibility.”
“So where are we going?” Edie asked.
“Out to the ruins,” Leila said, gesturing ahead of them. “It’s such a nice day, I wanted to spend some time outside. Fall will be descending on us soon.”
“That’s true,” Edie agreed. She had no arguments. It was a beautiful day; the sun was shining and there were only a few clouds in the sky, the light, fluffy kind that didn’t do anything. Besides, she wouldn’t argue with anything Leila wanted to do.
They reached the ruins a few minutes later. It looked very different in the sunlight. It was dimmer beneath the trees than it had been on campus, but it was still much brighter than it had been the last time Edie was here, when it had been illuminated by nothing but Christmas lights. The crumbled buildings looked sadder, though. Without the sharp shadows, they looked even shorter than before. Even the little mural looked dull and uninspired.
“It looks so different in the daytime,” remarked Edie.
“Yes, it’s less romantic,” Leila said.
Edie grinned up at her. “I didn’t say that. I think anywhere you are is romantic.”
Leila laughed, sending pleasurable shivers down Edie’s spine again. “You are so sweet.” She sat down on one of the bench-like slabs of concrete, pulling Edie gently down beside her. “I am so lucky to have you. I’m glad your friend Corrie had Byron invite you, or some other woman might have gotten to you first!”
Edie shook her head. “I’m the one who’s lucky. Heck, everyone is telling me that. Every time someone hears I’m dating you, they say I’m lucky. Not that I needed anyone to tell me that.”
“Really? How sweet!”
“I think some of them have been jealous, in fact.”
“Oh, dear.” Leila heaved a dramatic sigh. “Jealousy can be so dangerous. I hope they’ll be all right.”
Chapter 10: Tree-Climbing
Edie giggled. “You’re not afraid they’ll try to steal you away from me?”
“My dear, it could not be done. There is nothing that would tempt me to leave you.” Leila kissed her.
“You are too good to be true,” said Edie with a sigh.
Leila pinched her arm. Edie jumped and let out a small, undignified shriek. Leila was grinning wickedly. “Didn’t that feel real to you?”
“I think I’m the one who’s supposed to pinch you,” said Edie, grinning back and making her words true as she said them. Leila shrieked, just like Edie had, but more loudly.
Then she jumped up. “Try to catch me!” Jumping deftly over a piece of fallen concrete, she ran a few feet into the woods, glancing behind her shoulder.
Edie scrambled to her feet. She was neither as graceful nor as quick as Leila, but she ran after her anyway. To her surprise, Leila went up a tree instead of running further. Luckily, it was a tree with low enough branches that Edie could climb as well. That didn’t make it easy, though. “Not fair,” she panted as she pulled herself higher. “Your arms and legs are longer than mine!”
“Oh, all right,” came Leila’s voice from above. She reached down and half-pulled Edie up until they were both sitting on the same branch.
Looking down made Edie feel dizzy, though they were probably no more than fifteen feet from the ground, so she looked at Leila instead. “Are you sure this is safe?”
“Of course it is. I’ve been climbing this tree since before you were born.”
Edie raised her eyebrows. “You’re not that old. And if you’ve been a student for that long, I’ll have to reevaluate my impression of your intelligence.” That hadn’t been what Edie was worried about, anyway—they were a little farther into the woods than she was comfortable with. But she didn’t need to share that with Leila. Besides, they were together, and it was daytime, so they were probably safe.
Leila laughed. “Okay, maybe not since before you were born… I don’t think I was climbing trees at the age of three. And probably not this specific tree. But I grew up here.”
“Really?” Edie put one hand on the tree trunk. That made her feel a little more secure. “Are your parents professors?”
Leila shook her head. “They just happen to live here.”
“Oh, that’s convenient. Do you live with them still?”
“No, I couldn’t stand that! I live in Hickory. Which didn’t even exist when I was coming here to play as a kid.” Leila’s mouth drooped a little. “It seems like they’ve chopped down half the forest since then.”
“There is no way that is possible,” Edie said.
“No, of course not. But they did chop down one of my favorite trees. Now I have to pick a new one.” Leila leaned closer to Edie, smiling again. “This one has become a pretty good contender.”
“Yes, it seems to be supporting us pretty well.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.” Leila kissed Edie gently. “Though I think we should find a taller one,” she added, looking around. “This one is nice, but I don’t think we should climb any higher in it.”
Edie stared at her in disbelief. “Why on earth would you want to go higher?”
“To look around, of course!” Leila gestured with her arm, encompassing the campus that they could just see and all the forest that surrounded them. “From here, all we can see is the ground and the middles of other trees. If we can find a tall enough tree, we can see above the others, and probably see to the buildings as well.”
“Do you think there’s anything interesting to see? It’s just trees on three sides.”
“I’m sure there is. Come on.” Leila pushed herself off the branch, dropping down to the one below it, then climbed the rest of the way down the tree. Edie followed at a more sedate pace, making sure she could see the branch she was on and had a good grip with her hands before letting her legs go anywhere. As a result, by the time she reached the ground, crunching a few leaves and twigs under her feet, Leila was gone.
“Leila?” she called, looking around, feeling panic beginning to creep up on her. “Where are you?”
“Over here,” came the reply.
Edie took an uncertain step in the direction she thought Leila’s voice had come from. In all these trees she couldn’t even be sure of her directional hearing, and she didn’t know how close they were to the border between the college’s land and the faeries’ land. “Leila?”
“Come on!” called Leila. Edie took that to mean she was going in the right direction. She took another few steps, looking around. After a little while she heard Leila laughing. “Look up, dear.”
Chapter 11: High Above the World
Edie looked up. To her relief, Leila was on the second branch of a tree (an oak, if Edie were to guess), looking perfectly comfortable, confident, and safe. “You could have waited for me,” she complained.
“I did. I could have gotten much further up in the tree. Come on!”
Edie sighed and began to climb up the tree. This one was more difficult than the last one; the lowest branch was about shoulder height for her. She had to get her feet up onto a knot in the trunk and heave with her arms to get onto the branch. Though her legs were stronger and more toned from going up and down the steps all the time, she still had no upper body strength, and she sat straddling the branch and leaning against the trunk once she’d gotten there, panting. Leila poked her with her toe, and she looked up, trying to laugh but not having much success. “You have an unfair advantage,” she complained. “You’re taller. Not to mention thinner.”
“And isn’t this going to help you get thinner, like you wanted?”
“Only if I do it regularly!”
“So we make it a date. Every Saturday afternoon we climb trees together.”
“Until it gets too cold, and then I’ll refuse to go.”
“No, you’ll be thinner and stronger by then, and it will be easier for you.”
Edie sighed, admitting defeat, and slowly raised herself. She had caught her breath by now. With Leila’s help, she climbed up to the branch her girlfriend was on. But then Leila climbed up to the next branch. She helped Edie up, but didn’t give her any time to rest. After a few of those, Edie was panting and sweating. “I need a break,” she said, and Leila nodded, standing on one branch and holding the one above it while Edie sat half-slumped and half tense against the trunk. But she could see they were at least as high as they had been on the earlier tree, and that made her feel a little bit of pride.
Meanwhile, Leila had maneuvered so she was hanging by her knees from the upper branch, balancing herself with her hands on the branch Edie was sitting on. Edie shook her head at her girlfriend’s antics, smiling weakly. “I guess you do a lot of tricks like this for theater stuff, huh?”
“Sometimes,” said Leila, lifting her head so it wasn’t entirely upside-down. “Most plays just involve walking around, but when we do more interesting stuff I can. I’m hoping if we do A Midsummer Night’s Dream I’ll get to do some interesting acrobatics.”
“I never thought of Titania as hanging upside-down in trees.”
“Hmm. You’re right, I guess it’s more of a Puck thing. But I’d make a terrible Puck. Oh well.”
“I could play Bottom, though!” Edie offered.
Leila grinned and swung herself upright. “Oh, wouldn’t that be lovely! Too bad you’re too new to get any decent part. But wouldn’t you rather be Oberon? She ends up with him.”
Edie shook her head. “I think I could play a goofy guy in a donkey head, but not the handsome king of the fairies.”
“You’re right. Handsome is not you. You’re too beautiful. You could play Hermia, maybe…”
Edie laughed. “You’re just humoring me.”
“You know I’m not,” said Leila. “Ready to go higher?”
“I guess so.” Edie pulled herself slowly to her feet. “Uh, can I go first? So if I fall, you’ll have more of a chance of catching me?”
“Of course, darling,” said Leila immediately, moving further out on the branch. It seemed precarious to Edie, but the branch didn’t seem to bend too much under Leila’s weight. Edie climbed upward slowly, frequently looking down to see if Leila was still behind her. She was always there with an encouraging word or smile. Finally Edie reached up to pull on a branch and found it bending far too much for her comfort.
“I think this is as far up as I can go,” she said.
“I agree,” said Leila, climbing up onto a branch that was a little bit beneath Edie’s and a little way around the tree. “But what a lovely view!”
Once Edie had caught her breath again, she had to admit that it was. This wasn’t the tallest tree in the woods—or if it was, they weren’t able to get high enough to see over the tops of the others—but looking in that direction, what she could mostly see was the tops of what looked like a thousand trees. A week before, this view would probably have been much less interesting. But now, with the leaves starting to turn, it was endlessly fascinating. Most of the trees were still primarily green, but there were spots and splashes of darker green that were evergreens, and areas of yellow, red, and orange—even a few bare branches reaching out like arms. “Oh, look over there,” Edie cried, pointing. “That tree is yellow and surrounded by trees that are red.”
Leila looked and laughed. “It looks like a bull’s-eye!”
Chapter 12: Solid Ground
A crow or raven flew out of a nearer tree, cawing, and flew off only to be pursued a moment later by another bird of the same type. Far in the distance, Edie could see a larger bird circling. In the direction of the town, there was a flock of starlings zooming around in a cloud of black dots. A squirrel ran up a tree close to them, picked something up in its paws, stared at them for a moment, then scurried away.
“Look,” said Leila, calling Edie’s attention away, “you can see the campus, too.”
The campus was surprisingly interesting as well. Mostly all they could see was the tops of buildings, but they could see people moving in front of the windows, and in the field to the north, which wasn’t very far north of their own position. Some people were playing a game of Frisbee. They looked as small as dolls. “They almost don’t look real from here,” Edie said. “It’s like we’re so much higher than them that they’re… well, lesser than us, I guess.”
Leila nodded. “I know the feeling.”
They watched the people playing for a while. Edie couldn’t hear them at all, but it did seem that one team was winning, then the tide turned. The view distracted her until she began to feel hungry, which somehow reminded her of how high she was. “Thanks for convincing me to climb up here, Leila, but I think I’m ready to climb down now,” she said.
“Oh! Of course,” Leila said, sounding a little startled. “I’ll go down below you.”
Climbing down was, somehow, more difficult than climbing up. Maybe it was because she had to keep looking down and she could see how far away the ground was. And she was afraid to take a break. By the time she’d reached the bottom, she was shaky, but she was profoundly grateful to feel her feet touch solid ground, with no curve or air beneath her feet. She leaned against the tree trunk with a sigh, closing her eyes.
“Want to get some lunch?” Leila asked a moment later.
Edie opened her eyes and nodded, pushing away from the tree. Part of her shakiness was probably hunger, after all. It had been a couple of hours at least since breakfast, and they’d been doing a lot more exercise than she was used to. “Yeah, I’m starving.”
Leila seemed to know her way out of the woods back to campus, and Edie was all turned around from climbing up and down trees, so she let her girlfriend lead. She realized after a moment that if she hadn’t been with Leila—or maybe if she hadn’t already gone into the woods—she would have been quite nervous all this time. After all, going into the woods was against the rules. Breaking the rules was just not something she did. Bad enough she had broken the rules of normative heterosexuality. She’d never skipped a class, never stolen a cookie, never lied to her parents (not that she could remember, anyway). But now she felt calm. Maybe it was because she was with someone she trusted and who made her feel good, or maybe it was a sign of maturity. She was no longer afraid to break arbitrary rules.
They walked to the dining hall and swiped in for their meals. There were no tables for only two, but the hall wasn’t too crowded, and they claimed a relatively small table that was next to the comfortable booth at one end of the hall. Edie got herself a bowl of vegetable soup and a few crackers to go with it. When she sat down, Leila was already there, with an egg salad sandwich. She wrinkled her nose at Edie’s soup. “Ugh, that stuff is so salty.”
“You should talk,” said Edie, picking up a spoonful of soup and blowing lightly on it to cool it off. “Egg salad has plenty of salt in it, doesn’t it?”
“Not the dining hall’s version,” said Leila with a shrug. “I think they make their own mayo, actually. It has far more eggs than anything else, and it’s really not terribly salty at all. That’s why I like it. I’m not a big fan of salt.”
“And here I thought you were chastising me for eating something that’s bad for me.”
Leila laughed. “Now that would be hypocritical of me indeed. This sandwich is full of fat and cholesterol. I doubt your soup has any cholesterol at all. Are you a vegetarian?”
Edie was startled by the sudden change in subject at first, then realized that Leila was referring to the fact that her chosen lunch had no meat or, for that matter, eggs or dairy. And of course, the two of them had never had a meal together before. She shook her head. “I am trying to eat healthier, and one of my friends is a vegetarian, so she has been influencing me a little. But I’m still an omnivore.”
“Ah, is it Corrie who is a vegetarian?”
“No, our friend Dawn. You haven’t met her.”
Chapter 13: Jealousy
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Life at Chatoyant College finally seems to be settling down for the girls. They all have great people to date and they’re making lots of friends. But when Corrie, Edie, and Annie are assigned to a group project by their absurd teacher, a new mystery crops up. One of their fellow students has an illusion on him. What does he have to hide? And is there something more sinister going on?